The Gambia's move to overturn the ban on FGM poses a threat to girls and women
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The Gambia’s Move to Overturn the Ban on FGM Poses a Threat to Girls and Women Globally

On Monday, March 18, 2024, The Gambia’s parliament, consisting of 42 lawmakers, most of whom were men, voted to lift a ban on Female Genital Mutilation(FGM) that had been in place since 2015. According to Al Jazeera, Almameh Gibba, the legislator who introduced the bill, stated that the ban violated citizens’ rights to “practice their culture and religion.” There is no doubt that The Gambia’s move to overturn the ban on FGM poses a threat to girls and women globally.

Once again, the world has watched in utter horror as the attack on women’s rights was justified on religious grounds. What appalls me the most is the inability of religious and community leaders to question the framework that promotes the oppression of women and violates their fundamental human rights.

The voting was driven by increasing demands from a section of the community to allow their girls to practice FGM, an important religious custom. In August 2023, three women were convicted and fined for carrying out FGM on eight infant girls, leading to significant unrest in the country.

 

The bill will now be sent to a parliamentary committee for further scrutiny before a third reading, a process expected to take three months. If implemented, Gambia could become the first country in the world to overturn such a ban on Female Genital Mutilation.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a group of men, fueled by their so-called cultural and religious obligations, has made a decision related to women’s bodies. What troubles me the most is the realization that this is not about culture and religion, but about coercion and control over women and their autonomy.

 

FGM: Understanding the Practice and Its Harmful Impact on Girls and Women

According to the World Health Organization, Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice has no health benefits for girls and women and causes severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. 

 

FGM is performed on infants, little girls, and young women, violating a host of human rights. International human rights organizations unanimously consider FGM as child abuse, a form of violence against girls and women, and a violation of the bodily autonomy and reproductive rights of the victims.

 

To learn more about this practice, read Female Genital Mutilation: Facts and Resources

 

Based on a UNICEF report published on International Women’s Day 2024, Approximately 230 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, marking a 15 percent increase, or 30 million more individuals, compared to data released eight years ago. The majority of this global burden is concentrated in African countries, accounting for over 144 million cases, followed by over 80 million in Asia and over 6 million in the Middle East.

 

FGM is deeply entrenched in patriarchal social and cultural beliefs that are based on the fundamental idea of using women’s bodies as tools of oppression. The same sentiment is echoed in this post on FGM I wrote a few years back: ‘FGM is an extremely inhuman and tragic demonstration of how the lives and existence of women could be dictated by society and community.’

 

 

Why is the Abolition of FGM So Challenging?

The roots of FGM are ingrained in a multitude of social, religious, and cultural beliefs and superstitions including female cleanliness, cultural identity, protection of virginity, prevention of immorality, better marriage prospects, greater pleasure for the husband, and improvement of fertility.

 

The reasons behind performing FGM vary from place to place; the practice exists in different forms, brutally perpetuating the human rights of girls and young women. Some families even view cutting as a way of protecting their daughter’s chastity and that it is a prerequisite for marriage.

 

Nigerian Activist, Founder of #StopTheCut Campaign, and FGM Survivor Lola Ibrahim mentioned in her interview with Rights of Equality, “Since Nigerian men pay a dowry for their brides, it is common for the bride’s father to encourage some form of FGM to make his daughter more marketable to bachelors.”  She also said:

“FGM in Nigeria is a tradition that has been upheld for centuries to maintain male dominance. It is performed to ensure women keep their virginity, to provide men with greater pleasure during sexual intercourse, and to remove genitalia that appear unattractive to the male eye. Men make decisions regarding women’s bodies without considering how their choices negatively impact women and girls.”

 

Another Indian anti-FGM activist and FGM survivor Masooma Ranalvi mentioned women who want to speak up against this practice experience social boycott and retaliation in many forms. She said, We receive a lot of opposition from a section of the women themselves. These women campaign against us and call us all kinds of names. We get trolled on the internet. They say that we are against religion.” 

 

Out of the 29 countries where FGM is most prevalent, 24 governments have some laws against the practice. Nevertheless, there have been significant doubts about the enforcement of the laws. For example, in Sudan, FGM type III was banned in 1946, but continues to be practiced, and there have not been any successful prosecutions. Despite having anti-FGM laws, FGM is practiced widely in most of the countries in Africa. 

 

 

The Impact of Gambia’s Move on Women’s Rights 

The cultural and religious norms are particularly difficult to change, especially if such changes involve empowering women and granting them more rights and autonomy. Historically, societies have shown significant resistance to altering practices and policies that would provide greater power and freedom to women and girls, whether it be eliminating child marriage and Female Infanticides in India, male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, or decriminalization of abortion in different countries.

 

in 1997,  in the first ever statement addressing FGM was issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), in conjunction with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). It stated:

“Even though cultural practices may appear senseless or destructive from the standpoint of others, they have a meaning and fulfill a function for those who practice them. However, culture is not static; it is in constant flux, adapting and reforming. People will change their behavior when they realize the hazards and indignity of harmful practices and when they realize it is possible to give up harmful practices without giving up meaningful aspects of their culture.”

Since then, many international organizations, especially WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA, have constantly been working with governments, community and religious leaders, and grassroots organizations to eliminate FGM. Despite all efforts, progress has been plodding. UNICEF has recently estimated that to eliminate FGM by 2030 as a part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the progress would need to be 27 times faster than the rate seen in the past decade.

 

The Gambia’s move towards lifting a ban on female genital mutilation could make it the first country in the world to reverse legal protections against the practice. Overturning the ban on FGM by The Gambia could potentially set back the strides made by some countries over the last few decades in ending FGM, putting millions of women and girls’ lives at huge risk. This could also have a ripple effect on the anti-FGM policies and laws of other West African countries. Moreover, this move would corrode the position of women and girls not only in The Gambia but also set a dangerous precedent globally. This step would be a grave violation of human rights and could impact policies and laws surrounding women’s rights, including child marriage, divorce and inheritance laws, reproductive rights, and domestic violence prevention laws. In my opinion, this is not about culture or religion but about the desire to control women and their bodies.

 

Read: Feminism and the Advocacy of Women’s Rights: Why Are These Relevant Today?

Author

  • Swagata Sen

    A clinical researcher by profession, I am an advocate of gender equality and women’s rights. I have created Rights of Equality to dismantle institutionalized gender discrimination and harmful social practices through systemic changes. Over the last few years, our contributors from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds were able to voice their concerns about a range of issues that are oppressive to women across the world. We are hopeful that our efforts will help promote awareness and contribute to changing mindsets and shifting cultures about gender roles and norms.

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